Preaching in the language of hope*

by Richard on May 16, 2010

It’s been a fascinating weekend, partly spent at the British Esperanto Conference, which is meeting in Llandudno. They’d invited me to preach at the “Diservo”, which I’d arranged to be at the splendid St John’s Methodist Church. Our hymns were all Esperanto translations of familiar hymns, and we chose Welsh tunes so although the congregation wasn’t huge, we did sing with gusto. Perhaps because its pronunciation is so logical, Esperanto is a remarkably easy language to sing in.

I tried to preached a proper sermon. Whether I succeeded or not is not for me to say, of course. The Old Testament reading was predictable enough, the account of the tower of Babel - a story which means a good deal to Esperantists. The gospel, though, came from the long ending of Mark’s gospel. It wasn’t what I’d suggested, but I didn’t check my draft order of service carefully enough and so my disorganisation gave me a bit of a conundrum. The sermon I had planned was around the notion of the eterna komencanto (”eternal beginner”), a notion which is well-established in Esperanto circles, and apply that to the call to Christian discipleship. However, I decided that a change in the gospel required a change to the homily, though for some while I was a bit stuck. After all, I’m not at all convinced that the long ending of Mark belongs in the canon (as I’m sure I’ve said before). So how could I preach on it?

The link I found between the two passages was that I don’t regard either of them as conveying any historical information of value, but both point to an essential truth. In the Babel myth, the Babelanoj do not only build their famous tower for the sake of their own glory, but because they feared to be scattered over the earth. In Mark, we have an account of Jesus commanding the disciples to be so scattered, for the sake of the gospel.

You might not agree that that’s a good and worthwhile link, but I was quite pleased with how the homily developed and it appeared to be well-received despite my hesitant delivery. (I was much more tied to my notes than I would have been in English)

I also discovered that though I regard myself as reasonably competent at writing and reading E-o, the fact is that my ability to converse is next to hopeless. Text is OK, but I haven’t had the exposure to actual speech necessary for conversation. Talking to actual people is different from listening to stuff on the interweb.

And I’ve a feeling there’s a sermon in that somewhere, too.

* Esperanto means “one who hopes”

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 05.16.10 at 7:58 pm

The Old Testament reading was predictable enough, the account of the tower of Babel - a story which means a good deal to Esperantists.

I don’t know why. The story is about what happens when everyone speaks the same language: averse to the will of God, they try to make themselves autonomous. In other words, the Babel story speaks against, not for, a common language. That God scatters the Babylonian Bobs, with their olympian aspirations, and colours their communities multi-lingual (and multi-cultural), is only superficially a punishment, its depth grammar is grace, as God continues his original purpose of dispersion by other means. Alas, now the denizens of the world will not undertand one another, but God will make good (in The Captain’s famous words) this “failure to communicate” - at Pentecost, during which the crowd does not suddenly become monoglot, no, the people continue to speak their native tongues, only now - the miracle - they understand each other.

In short, linguistic variety is a blessing, not a curse. Disapora is God’s will. And the (hopeless) Esperantist project is, in fact but the construction of a new ziggurat. Repent, Richard! Turn from your linguistic sin! Learn Italian. ;)


Bill Chapman 05.16.10 at 8:50 pm

I beg to disagree with Kim who says that “The story is about what happens when everyone speaks the same language: averse to the will of God, they try to make themselves autonomous.” That’s a strange interpretation. I think it’s more about the folly of people trying to do things in their own strength.

The Esperanto movement does not expect that a people will “suddenly become monoglot” but that people will have a common second language.

Although, or because, I speak Esperanto, I have to agree wholeheartedly with Kim that “linguistic variety is a blessing, not a curse”. Indeed, as a Welsh speaker I would add firmly that Esperanto has a role to play in the preservation of the world’s wonderful linguistic variety.

I was in Richard’s congregation this morning. Just behind me were Olga from Ukraine and Anica from Slovenia. They understood your sermon, Richard. It was almost a miracle to hear a sermon in a language to which you have had so little exposure.

Stay on the straight and narrow path of Esperanto, Richard! Learn Italian if you need it, but it won’t get you far in Finland or the Czech Republic, or Cameroon or Croatia, all countries in which I have had the privilege of visiting the homes and families of Esperanto speakers.


Michjo 05.17.10 at 2:40 am

True, God can and does resort at times to spectacular displays of his might, but as Elijah discovered, as recounted in 1 Kings 19:11-12, the Lord is usually in, not the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but the no less miraculous but infinitely gentler still, small voice, which tends to have a much more profound and enduring effect on people. Just before Jesus rose to his Father, he commanded his disciples to bring his Gospel to the whole earth. The miracle of the gift of tongues was used on occasion, but for the most part, the vehicle of the phenomonal spread of Christianity was the common interlanguages of the time, which included Greek and Aramaic. It should come as no surprise that the first editions of the New Testament were published in Greek and Syriac, the literary Aramaic dialect of that time. The widespread use of Greek, or of Aramaic and Hebrew among Jews, did not prevent anyone from using the local vernacular (Acts 2:9-11 makes it clear that linguistic diversity was alive and well in that day).

Enter Esperanto. It’s not meant to replace other languages, but to act as a voluntary common second language to make it easier for people of different mother tongues to communicate freely. The Esperanto community is all in favor of linguistic diversity: cherish and nurture your native language and the culture it serves to transmit for use within your language community, but when you need to communicate with people outside of that community - in which case, someone has to learn another language - consider Esperanto, which is much easier to learn than any national language, enough so that two people can learn Esperanto for much less than the cost of one person learning the other’s national language, with both on an equal footing.

If the Lord saw fit to use auxiliary languages at Jesus’ time to accomplish his designs, why would he object to Esperanto today? “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12) suggests that making each other’s lives easier and more productive through the use of Esperanto as a common second language is congruous with the ideals of Christianity.


Pam 05.17.10 at 6:30 am

I am currently tutoring an Ethiopian mother, whose family has recently settled in our town. I am attempting to teach her English, and am full of admiration for Genet as she struggles to learn this difficult language. I’m sure if our roles were reversed I’d be throwing a few plates around in frustration.


Leland Bryant Ross 05.18.10 at 9:20 am

I wish I could have been there. I’d be extremely grateful if you’d email me the order of worship, or at least a list of the hymns. I’m a bit sorry in a way to hear that the hymns were “all Esperanto translations of familiar hymns”, as this means you didn’t sing any original Esperanto hymns, some of which are both very good and very pertinent to such a worship context. On the other hand, a good Butler or Downes version of a good Watts or Wesley text set to a good Welsh tune is certainly something worth singing.


Richard 05.18.10 at 11:07 am

In fact, I lied when I said they were all translations. One hymn was an original I believe: “Eternulo, granda Dio”. We sang it to Rhuddlan. Here’s the Ordo de Diservo (pdf) for those who are interested.

You’ll see that we opened with Wesley, but I’m afraid Mr Watts did not make an appearance on this occasion.


londonviews 11.11.12 at 9:37 pm

What is the best and most effective way to learn esperanto?


Richard 11.12.12 at 12:26 am

Have a look at Lots of resources there.

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